The community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, gathered at the intersection of Montgomery and Utica on May 2 to rally and march in support the family of Saheed Vassell, and the demands they are making of the New York Police Department.
Four weeks earlier, the police murdered Vassell, a 34-year-old Black man, at that very intersection. Multiple witnesses confirm that plainclothes undercover officers just jumped out of their car and killed him. Police gave no warnings and issued no commands before firing 19 shots.
The family is demanding the names of all officers involved in the shooting, disciplinary records of all officers involved, all unedited surveillance videos of the shooting, and an explanation for why the tactical police, the Strategic Response Group, were on the scene.
The family of Saheed Vassell, who was known locally as “Sy,” also wanted neighbors to know their plan to pack the Community Board meeting on May 17, at 7 p.m., at 400 Empire Blvd., to voice these demands.
The action was called by the Family of Saheed Vassel, BAJI, Brooklyn Movement Center, the ANSWER Coalition, Safety Beyond Policing and Victor Small.
Let ‘Brooklyn serve as a pressure point’
The crowd grew until it was too large to fit on the street corner and spilled onto the street. Participants ranged from the very elderly to 5-year-old children sitting on the shoulders of their parents. In attendance was Vassell’s mother and father, two uncles, brother and son.
When Vassell’s father, known as “Pops,” joined the crowd he was greeted with welcomes and words of support. Pops greeted everyone with grace and serenity. It was clear that not only was Sy Vassell very well known to the community, but his entire family were no strangers to all those around Crown Heights.
Pops addressed the crowd, emphasizing both his gratitude for the community attendance and the importance of consistency in struggle. He called for protracted struggle, and proposed that the borough of Brooklyn serve as a sharp pressure point concerning the problems of police violence and over-policing in communities of color.
Eric Garner’s mother speaks
Mrs. Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, was next to take the megaphone. Having lost a child to police violence herself, Mrs. Carr’s message carried special weight. “We will not give up!” her voice rang out, “and we will pack this street corner, the community boards, and anywhere else we have to in order to win justice for our people gone too soon!”
Kerbie Joseph, of the ANSWER Coalition, cautioned the crowd against believing the narrative that “the system was broken.” In her fiery speech she explained, “The system is working just as it is supposed to in Amerikkka!” Her speech drew a huge response from the crowd, such that she gave pause to say, “I know it’s emotional, family, but this is our struggle.”
Albert, of BAJI, spoke next. His voice reached the very back of the crowd, and echoed off the wall of the barbershop, where barbers and customers who were all friends of Vassell stood. “Any time you open fire on the community, you have declared war.” Albert repeated himself with more fervor, “You have declared war!”
Vassell’s uncle, an elder who flew up from Jamaica for the event, was the last scheduled speaker. With calmness and determination he told the people of Crown Heights, “You all may not be old enough to remember the 60s, but I am. And that was a time of organized defense of the people on the part of the Black Panther Party. These were righteous brothers,” he continued, “and it will take the same revolutionary force to overturn this world of lower class and higher class, of police and people, or all kinds of distinctions in power.” His words commanded respectful silence from the crowd. If had not been for passing fire trucks and ambulances, those words would have reached blocks of silent attention.
A collective empowerment
There was a brief open mic for the community, where people spoke warmly of their personal relationships with Sy Vassell. Then the family formed the front line of a march which took the streets and did a small tour of the neighborhood. Everywhere, people raised fists from the windows of cars and apartment buildings. Children ran along side of the march saying, “Hey they’re talking about Sy!” There was no police interference.
The march ended back at the intersection of Montgomery and Utica, where the people counted out in unison all 19 shots the police fired at Saheed Vassell. The crowd had grown so large that community members jumped out into the street to direct traffic at the intersection. There was an air of determination and solidarity. Everyone had looks of empowerment and readiness on their faces. With community members directing traffic, and cars knowingly obliging, this was truly a collective experience.
As the sun set, Pops and the family thanked everyone again for showing up to struggle and advocate for his late son.